It was exactly what the state championship should be: A that doesn't stop until the last possible moment.
Saturday, on the campus of Concordia University in Irvine, the Albany volleyball team fell to Cathedral Catholic of San Diego, 2-3 (15-25, 25-23, 25-21, 29-31, 14-16), ending the final chapter of a magical 2011 season.
And, when it was over, although the Lady Cougars couldn't call themselves California Interscholastic Federation Division 3 state champions, they did walk away with the knowledge that they were just as good as the team that could.
"I'm not mad at all," senior setter McKenzie Giblin said. "We traveled an amazing road this year. We haven't won [a North Coast section championship] in 11 years. We've never been to [the Northern California state tournament], and we've never been to state. This team definitely defined a moment. We made it all the way here. So, win or lose, they're all winners to me, honestly. This team is amazing."
Giblin herself was amazing Saturday afternoon, playing every second of a two-plus hour match that included a masterpiece fourth game in which Albany fought off the match-point on eight different Cathedral Catholic serves.
Down 24-21, Albany forced five ties and three lead-changes before finally succumbing to a Kamila Tan kill and a 31-29 Game 4 loss. During the stretch, Giblin (43 assists) and junior outside hitter Kyra Holt went to work, connecting on three of Holt's game-high 18 kills.
Holt slammed home three more winners in the decisive fifth game, as did senior middle Kariana Castanon-Hill (11 kills, four block-stuffs), but after the Giblin-to-Holt connection knotted the game at 14, a service that landed out of bounds and a hit that sailed wide would seal the Cougars' fate.
"You can't play a match like this and not walk away feeling [like you really won]," Albany coach Roger Worsley said. "We have been in an underdog situation all season, not because of our talent, but because people didn't know about us. People didn't respect us. It was a, 'Where did they come from?' kind of deal. Inside though, we felt we possessed what you saw tonight."
Which was an over-abundance of heart.
Cathedral Catholic, a team loaded with length and talent, breezed through Game 1, taking it by 10 points without breaking a sweat. But, down 16-8 in Game 2, and with a sizable contingent of loyal Albany fans wondering if the mind-numbing trek down Interstate-5 was worth it, the Cougars finished off a long rally with a winner, and, suddenly, there was a spark.
"This team, it beats with a singular heart," Worsley said. "It was very evident in the way we were able to sustain our success this season. Specifically, from mid-October on, we operated as one. If one player had an off-night, she knew that she would have a teammate there to pick her up. The last half of the season, our mantra became, 'Composure. Support. Define our moment.' It's something we live by."
Define the moment, they did.
Shannon Riggio-Kerley stepped to the endline, and served up a pin-point accurate short-serve, which took the Dons off their flow and set up an easy return, a Giblin feed, and a Mia Jauregui finish.
Albany caught the Dons at 18 points and didn't look back.
Riggio-Kerley finished with seven service points and a pair of aces, including the Game 2 winner.
"They were vulnerable to the short-serve," Worsley said. "We did a good job of executing the gameplan we came in with. We were focused on blocking [senior middle blocker Morgan] Cormier, and I felt we forced their setters to push it outside more. We were sporadic on the outside blocking, but I felt we did enough there, combined with our short-serve, that we were able to turn the match in our direction."
Game 3 started, as usual, with Cathedral Catholic up, but Albany forced ties at six and eight before taking over behind Holt (seven service points) at the endline.
By the time Giblin fed Marin Gibson for the fourth of her seven kills, Albany was up 14-9, and cruising toward a 2-1 game advantage.
"We made some adjustments which got us back into the match," Worsley said. "It's a game of opportunity, and we had some opportunities there. [Cathedral Catholic] did a better job of capitalizing on those opportunities than we did."
Amber Erhahon finished with five kills, and Jauregui chipped in three, as well as a pair of block-stuffs. Jenny Wu added six service points.
"It was a great game," Giblin said. "We played our heart out. We didn't lose. We got beat."
Albany finished the season at 36-7 overall.
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